Universal

REVIEW: Styx – Crash of the Crown (2021)

“I don’t think Styx will ever top The Mission.” — Me

“I think Styx just topped The Mission.” — Also me

STYX – Crash of the Crown (2021 Universal)

Remarkable!  49 years old, and still putting out some truly superlative records.  What’s the secret?

Like their contemporaries Journey and Whitesnake, Styx have expanded to a seven-member band including new guitarist/songwriter/producer Will Evankovich.  With just as many songwriting credits on the new album Crash of the Crown as Tommy Shaw has, this addition feels appropriate.  James “JY” Young and Chuck Panozzo (original bassist, now part time) are the only links to the distant past.  Styx have not always been the most focused on new music (14 year gap between Cyclorama and The Mission) but it seems like Evankovich has sparked their creativity.  Two albums in a row, Styx have risen to high-water marks, pleasing fans and stunning critics.

If there’s a blatant concept this time it’s not as obvious, but recurring musical themes hint that there might be more going on than just 15 new tracks.  Crash of the Crown is assembled from smaller chunks of music that flow together in one seamless whole, but the individual songs are all under four minutes, including two brief interludes.

Opening with a wicked Lawrence Gowan keyboard bit, “The Fight of Our Lives” is a powerful and catchy intro to this distinguished album.  Tommy Shaw: lead vocals, backed by the increasingly thick Styx choir.  Pay attention to the main guitar theme as it’ll be back.  Beatles-y chords are another recurring affair.  (The Fab Four sound like a major influence on both Crash of the Crown, and the new Dennis DeYoung album 26 East Vol. 2.)

A progressive guitar/keyboard riff brings us to “A Monster”.  If anything it’s a song about the last two years.  “Here’s to the prisoners trapped in their cages,” could certainly be about the current time, “a monster chasing its tail”.  Big guitar solos and hooks make this an unorthodox and complex little winner.

Acoustics ring on “Reveries”, the first Gowan lead vocal.  It has a big powerful chorus and the acoustic base is reminiscent of classic 70s Styx.  But before too long, Tommy Shaw and JY rise up for a massive tandem electric guitar break.  Stuff like this is why they need a third guitarist now, so the rhythm doesn’t drop out live.  “Reveries” flows seamlessly into the dull rain of “Hold Back the Darkness”.  The foreboding tune, like clouds warning to stay ashore, is spare with piano and acoustics forming the basis.

Winston Churchill’s words form a part of “Save Us From Ourselves”, always a nice touch in a rock song.  It possesses a more upbeat pulse, but no less powerful.  The Tommy Shaw refrain in the chorus is typically bright and rhapsodic.  It builds into something stageworthy, and leads into the title track and single “Crash of the Crown”.  Individually, this song impresses less on the radio.  It belongs on the album, flowing in and out.  It’s a component of a larger piece.  Incidentally it’s the first Styx song with three lead singers.  In order:  JY, Shaw and Gowan, each with completely unique sections.  Stick with it, and a riff from “Fight Of Our Lives” returns to knock you back in your seat.  Then there’s some instrumental wickedness and robot vocoder madness.   It is like three or four songs crammed into one and it’s boggling why it was chosen as a single.  Except to impress the fact that Styx aren’t playing around.

You need a bit of a break after a workout like “Crash of the Crown” and so the folksy “Our Wonderful Lives” is the ideal tonic.  A huge singalong chorus is backed by simple kick drums, acoustics, and accordion.  It’s a beam of hope on an album born from dark times.  Sounding a bit like “39” by Queen, and completed with a blast of Beatles-y horns.

The dark growl of a Hammond B3 transitions into “Common Ground”, slower and thick with the modern Styx harmonies.  It has some very different parts, one pounding with heavy drums and one light and flighty.  While it stands as a song to itself, it also works to transition into “Sound the Alarm”, an RSD single and album highlight.  This handsome Shaw ballad is reminiscent of some of his past best and serves as a bit of a hippy-like anthem.  “There is no future in the way it was,” Shaw sings correctly.  All at once, it has ingredients similar to “Show Me with Way”, “Mr. Roboto”, “High Enough” and “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)”.  There’s sorrow, there’s hope, there’s bombast and a digital pulse.

The digital pulse leads directly into the drum-heavy “Long Live the King”.  It’s also the most Queen-like, with an absolutely May-ish solo.  Imagine if you tried to build a Queen song on top of the drum beat from Guns N’ Roses’ “You Could Be Mine”.

Gowan has a brief piano segue called “Lost At Sea” before the proper song “Coming Out the Other Side”.  This calm ballad has a taste of India with the tabla, but manages not to sound like the Beatles this time.  It recalls rebirth, and there’s a killer solo to go on top.  “To Those” goes full-blown upbeat triumphant Styx, a brilliant refrain brimming with adrenaline.  “For those who do survive, find beauty in your lives.  Don’t be afraid of love, stand up and rise above.”

Instrumental segue “Another Farewell” steers into the final track “Stream”, which sounds and reads like an ending to a story.  Whether the band intended to or not, it seems they’ve made another concept album in Crash of the Crown.  “We’ve never been a protest band,” insists Shaw, “We’re more like a gospel caravan trying to send out positive messages wherever we go.”  If that’s the case, then “Stream” must be the happy musical ending, an upbeat drift into the fade.

Perhaps there’s a clue to Styx’s meaning in the packaging.  Morse code hidden in the CD tray reveals the words “WHOS GONNA SAVE US FROM OURSELVES”.

According to the lengthy liner notes, Styx went into Crash of the Crown with no compromises and came out of it with the album they wanted.  With a diverse set of instruments at hand, they clearly had no inhibitions.  The end result is an album less direct the The Mission, but dense with ideas compacted into mere minutes of songs.  Fortunately most of those ideas were really excellent.  Any time a band like Styx makes an album, there’s a fear it will be the last one.  It sounds like this band has plenty more fuel left in the solid rocket boosters.  Whatever the future holds, Crash of the Crown is the kind of triumph any young band would hold as their magnum opus.  With Styx, there is so much history it’s futile to compare.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Styx – Cornerstone (1979, coloured vinyl reissue)

STYX – Cornerstone (Originally 1979 A&M, 2020 Universal red vinyl reissue – limited to 1000 copies)

With Cornerstone, Styx were on their fourth album in their most successful incarnation:  Dennis DeYoung, James Young, Tommy Shaw, and Chuck & John Panozzo.  Shaw was the newest member and a fierce creative force in songwriting, on guitar, and with his own lead vocals.  Styx had a string of hits with this lineup including Crystal Ball, The Grand Illusion, and Pieces of EightCornerstone would be their biggest yet.  Though imperfect, it’s loaded with memorable songs and dynamite performances from the poppy-pretentious-prog-rock quintet.

What a terrific song “Lights” still is, with that big fat keyboard lick and Tommy Shaw’s delicate lead vocal.  You can hear why the punk rockers sought to eradicate the likes of Styx and their contemporaries.  But Cornerstone went to #2 in the album charts, and “Lights” was one of the singles released in Europe.  It’s a song about performing on stage, something that most of us will never be able to relate to.  But there’s something in its sincerity that is just charming.  “Give me the lights, precious lights, give me lights.  Give me my hope, give me my energy.”

Another single follows called “Why Me” (which wasn’t intended to be a single, but we’ll get into that).  A head-bopping light rock delight.  One of those tracks where you say, “Yeah, decent song.”  You might forget about it later; you might forget which album it’s on.  But it’s cool, especially when a blistering saxophone solo hits the speakers.

The big hit is in the third slot:  legendary power ballad “Babe”, Styx’s only #1.  Its strength is its pure corniness.  Surely, it must have been corny in 1979 too.  Yet a word comes back to me – “sincerity”.  Dennis DeYoung sounds completely sincere singing, “Babe, I love you,” like he means it.  Indeed as I research the album, “Babe” was written for Dennis’ wife.  You can hear it.  And if I was writing a song for my wife, you’d find it corny too.

A natural follow up to this Dennis-fest is a solid Tommy Shaw rocker called “Never Say Never”.  One of those album tracks that couldn’t stand on its own as a single, but has a perfect slot on side one after the big ballad.  That is an important slot for any rock band’s side one.  You have to get the blood pumping and the circulation back into the extremities with something that has some pep.  Because before you know it, the side will be done.

And side one closes on an epic:  Tommy’s mandolin-inflected “Boat on a River”.  Shaw on mandolin, guitar and autoharp.  Dennis on accordion, Chuck Panozzo on double bass with a bow.  Although fully acoustic with no electric, “epic” is the best word to describe it.  Perhaps it is a precursor to the the current popular “sea shanty” trend.  Well, Styx did one in 1979.

Side two kicks off with a blast:  “Borrowed Time”.  It’s amusing to hear Dennis start the song by saying, “Don’t look now, here comes the 80s!”  But this fun romp will be almost completely forgotten when you are suffocated by “First Time”, one of the most syrupy ballads ever foisted upon us.  Too syrupy, though the string section is a nice touch.  And it would have been the second single, had Tommy Shaw not objected.  “Babe” was a smash, and so “First Time” was selected to follow it.  Tommy expressed concern at two ballads in a row for the first two singles, and threatened to quit the band over it.  Things got so nasty that Dennis DeYoung was briefly fired and then re-hired over the issue.  And thus “Why Me” was chosen as second single instead.  Probably for the best…though you never know.

What do we need now?  A James Young rocker!  “Eddie” is his sole writing and singing credit on Cornerstone.  And it rocks hard, James pushing the upper register of his voice.  You wanna talk deep cuts, well “Eddie” is one of the best.  Interestingly it’s also one of those songs where the verses are slightly better than the choruses.

The closing slot on Cornerstone is left to Tommy Shaw’s “Love in the Midnight”, an interesting choice, echoing the side one closer when it opens acoustically.  It is the most progressive of the songs, featuring an absolutely bonkers Dennis keyboard solo and suitably gothic “ahh-ahh-ahh” backing vocals within a section with odd timing.  Things get heavy and punchy.  Definitely going out with a bang and not a whimper on this one.

This transparent vinyl reissue looks and sounds nice. It’s a gatefold sleeve with lyrics, pictures, and moustaches.  Not as cheap as buying a vintage vinyl or CD…just a lot nicer to look at.

4/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: Paul Stanley’s Soul Station – Now and Then (2021)

PAUL STANLEY’S SOUL STATION – Now and Then (2021 Universal)

Reviewing Paul Stanley’s new album, Now and Then featuring his new band Soul Station, is probably the most challenging task I have ahead of me this morning.  It’s difficult for several reasons, primarily three.  Full disclosure.

 

 

 

  1. Paul Stanley might be my favourite artist of all time.
  2. His voice is in decline and this is always evident.
  3. How can I review Paul’s soul covers without comparing to the originals?

The truth is I like soul just fine, but the bulk of my collection is made of different grades of rock.  I have an Etta James CD.  I’m far from qualified to review this.  But I have to, so I’ll try.

Paul’s band is 10 members (excluding himself) augmented by a horn and a string section.  18 musicians are credited total, with Paul as “lead singer”:  the first time on any of his albums where Paul plays no instruments.  Unexpectedly, Paul’s Kiss bandmate Eric Singer is Soul Station’s drummer.

There are 14 tracks:  nine covers, and five originals.  You can’t accuse Paul Stanley of taking the easy route.

Remember when Kiss were accused of going Disco in 1979?  “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” really sounds Disco, and certainly there’s nothing wrong with the flawless arrangement, from the lush strings to the punchy horns.  In fact, Paul’s diminished voice is the only noticeable weakness.  He covers for it pretty well.  He used to belt it out all time; now he usually holds back in a soft whispery falsetto.  A performer has to adapt to their limits at every age.  Good tune.  But this is a new Paul Stanley and he’s not the best singer in his band.  He’s just the lead singer.

The first original, “I Do”, sounds like the real thing.  It’s a light ballad, arranged with the strings and full band treatment to sound pretty much just like the covers.  But the really surprising original is “I, Oh, I”, a terrific upbeat dance-y number.  Not only does it sound authentic but it’s also catchy as hell.  You could imagine it in a rock arrangement, and Paul points out in the liner notes that he wrote, arranged and orchestrated all his originals.

“Ooo Baby Baby” is a Smokey Robinson cover, and like the original it’s in falsetto.  It’s one of the harder songs to listen to.  “O-O-H Child” is better, though no substitute for the original.  Paul does well on the upbeat tracks with plenty of melodic hooks.  One of his backing singers take the lead on a few lines.  And although Eric Singer does a mighty job on the drums, he is a rock drummer playing soul, and that’s evident in the fills.  The groove of the 70s just isn’t something that can be recreated easily.

You can tell by the title that “Save Me (From You)” is a Paul original.  Sounds like a leftover from the Live To Win album, jazzed up for the Soul Station.  That said, it’s a pretty good track.  It’s a nocturnal rumble that does really well standing up to the classics.  It cannot be denied that Paul Stanley has a knack for writing a melodic song.  All of his writing credits on Now and Then are solo credits.

“Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” is not bad.  It’s the falsetto again, but massaged in the studio, and backed by the Soul Station, this one makes the grade.  Nobody doubts Paul’s genuine love of this music.  In the liner notes he takes ample time explaining his roots with Detroit soul.  And it was him that was hanging out in New York Disco clubs, when he decided he could write one of those songs for Kiss.

“Whenever You’re Ready (I’ll Be Here)” is a duet with one of his backing singers; upbeat, well done.  “The Tracks of My Tears” exposes the weaknesses in Paul’s voice but there are plenty of backing singers to cover for him.  That aside, it’s another great Soul Station cover.  “Let’s Stay Together” (Al Green) underwhelms; I mean how can it not?  The best thing I can say is that it’s better than Michael Bolton’s version.  “La-La — Means I Love You” also kind of just sits there, threatening to send the listener off to sleepytime land.  Fortunately, Paul’s original “Lorelei” revives the album, with upbeat melodic charm.  Cool guitar solo on this one too.

Two more covers to get through — “You Are Everything” (no thanks) and “Baby I Need Your Loving”.  Fortunately the latter song closes the album, on an earnest upbeat note with Paul giving the lungs a little exercise.  Solid ending.

Observation:  I enjoyed Paul Stanley’s Soul Station more the first three or four times I played it — as background music.   When it comes to listening intently, it didn’t capture me.

Observation 2:  Peter Criss got shit all over for trying to make an album somewhat like this back in 1978.

If Paul had released a mini-album (or extra large EP) with only seven or eight tracks, I think we’d be praising his originals and taste in covers.  Unfortunately chinks in the armour appear too frequently on the bulk of the album.  Good background music, but not an outstanding set.

Paul’s originals – 4/5 stars
Covers – 1.5/5 stars
Kiss Fan Fanatic Score – 100/5 stars
Realistic Score – 2/5 stars

REVIEW: The Black Crowes – Shake Your Money Maker (2021 deluxe edition)

THE BLACK CROWES – Shake Your Money Maker (Originally 1990, 2021 Universal deluxe edition)

How many times have you bought Shake Your Money Maker (31 years old but not a day over 20)?  This time the Crowes did it (mostly) right.  The last time they reissued this album in 1998, they added only two bonus tracks.  Now there are 25.  These include a whole disc of rarities called More Money Maker, and a homecoming live set from December 1990 with the original lineup and a sneak peak at new, work-in-progress songs.  All of this is worth your money to buy one more time.  Especially for the songs they were already road-testing.

Disc 1:  Shake Your Money Maker

Freshly remastered and sounding good.  Opening up with a rip of slide guitar, the Crowes made their southern bluesy roots known from the get go.  It was nothing like Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, or anybody else on the radio at the time, except maybe the London Quireboys.  They drew influence from the 70s:  Bands like the Stones and Skynyrd, as well as the old Mississippi Delta bluesmen.  Listen to Rich Robinson’s slide and dig in.  Chris Robinson’s bluesy drawl delivers a hell of a chorus.  “Twice As Hard” is perfect in every measure, and producer George Drakoulias captured it without messing with it.

Second in line is the debut single “Jealous Again”.  It sounds like the offspring of the Stones at their boogie-woogie best.  The noticable difference is the big drum sound wielded by Steve Gorman, the Crowes’ secret weapon.

Shake Your Money Maker is a well rounded album with a few piano based slow tracks.  The first ballad is “Sister Luck”, sort of prototype for the kind of things the Crowes would do in the future.  You want authenticity?  That’s Chuck Leavell on keys.

Back to the rock, “Could I’ve Been So Blind” kicks it with a shot in the arm and a great chorus.  Thing go slow again on the organ-based blues “Seeing Things”.  The wild thing is, the Crowes were just kids, but it sounds like they have years and years of pain to pour into these songs.

One of the most well known singles from Shake Your Money Maker was the old Otis Redding cover “Hard to Handle”.  A bit of a surprise to hear an Otis song on the radio, but we gladly took it.  The Robinson swagger on this one is enormous.  Back to rock, “Thick N’ Thin” begins with a car crash. Fast paced rock and roll with boogie woogie piano gets the feet moving, like the Faces on adrenaline.

One of the fastest songs gives way to the slowest one.  “She Talks to Angels” is the only one that technially deserves the tag “ballad”.  Acoustics guitars, organ, and Chris’ plaintive voice took it to #1 on the US “album rock” charts.  It’s still just as stunning today, with the feel still coming through.

Moving in for the close, “Struttin’ Blues” is relatively nondescript compared to some of the prior ass-kickers.  They save the most kick-ass for last:  “Stare It Cold”.  It starts as a standard Stones-y rocker, but then it picks up speed right to the end, brilliantly ending the debut album on a hell of a good impression.

Disc 2:  More Money Maker:  Unreleased Songs & B-Sides

This isn’t all the B-sides of course; the Crowes issued plenty of live tracks that you will have to track down the singles for.  This does collect the studio music that made it onto B-sides and bonus tracks, as well as far more serious rarities.  One of those is “Charming Mess”, a slamming unreleased track that easily could have been a hit.  Slippery guitars, bouncing piano, and a wicked chorus.  Early Crowes tended to keep things simple, and this a great example of their early charm, cranked up to 10.

The Humble Pie cover “30 Days in the Hole” is tight and clean.  Johnny Colt was an underrated bass player and you can hear it on this decent but underwhelming cover.  The original “Don’t Wake Me” is an also-ran, in the fast-paced category.  Great guitar work as always though, so always something to listen for.  The Lennon cover “Jealous Guy” always lacked something that the original had, but by turning it into a lamenting blues, the Crowes made it their own more than the other covers.  The original “Waitin’ Guilty” is a real treat.  Happier with twang, it was rarely played live, perhaps because it’s a bit of a departure.  A sweet, tasty, twangy departure.

The “Horn Mix” of “Hard To Handle” has been difficult to track down for years.  Here it finally is!  One thing not apparent when listening to it on a shitty radio — the bass really thumps on this remix.  With this version now finally widely available, it is the definitive mix.  Two acoustic versions of big hits are next:  “Jealous Again” and “She Talks to Angels”.  Stripped down to the very basics with no drums.  “She Talks to Angels” benefits very much from the bare arrangement, becoming something truly special.

This disc ends on a double treat:  Two early demos by Mr. Crowe’s Garden, the incarnation that preceded the Black Crowes.  “She Talks to Angels” is fully written but with a higher lead vocal melody.  “Front Porch Sermon” is more folksy than what we usually expect from the Crowes, at least until the later years.  Banjo is the dominant instrument.   The chorus is a dead ringer for Blue Rodeo.  Great stuff; let’s hope we get more Mr. Crowe’s Garden demos in the future.

Disc 3:  The Homecoming Concert:  Atlanta, GA December 1990

For many, this is the main feature of the set, and for good reason.  This era of the Crowes only lasted a short time and change is already evident.  The new material they were working on, and were already playing live, was different.  The band was also changing and soon guitarist Jeff Cease would be out of the lineup, replaced by Marc Ford.  This concert CD is one of our few chances to hear what Jeff Cease brought to the band.  They couldn’t have grown where they did with Cease, but as the lead guitarist on these rock and roll tracks, he’s perfect.

Chris Robinson is on fire, as evident on the stormin’ first song, “Thick N’ Thin”.  It’s an energetic version and that energy carries over into a new song called “You’re Wrong”.  It would later evolve into “Sting Me”.  The sound of Southern Harmony was starting to creep in and you get a lot more a  bit later into the set.  Although nobody sounds bored, the Crowes roll out the hit “Twice as Hard” next.  It could be one of the best versions out there, for Chris’ impassioned overblown vocal.

Favourites from the album are played one after the other:  “Could I’ve Been So Blind”, “Seeing Things”, “She Talks to Angels”, “Sister Luck”, and “Hard to Handle”.  Particularly powerful is “Seeing Things” though highlights are plenty through these tunes.  The Crowes also peppered their sets with non-album covers.  “Shake ‘Em On Down” (Bukka White) is unexpectedly followed by “Get Back” (The Beatles).  But really it’s just one extended jam on some familiar themes.

The real treat is a full 13 minute version of “Words You Throw Away”, the long jam that would one day evolve into a little hit called “Remedy”.  You can hear certain chords and rhythmic ideas that ended up in “Remedy”, and maybe also “Thorn in My Pride”.  It is however its own song, with some unbelievable hooks of its own that never made it into anything else.  Just lay back and enjoy all 13 minutes of musical nirvana.

Closing the set with “Stare It Cold” and “Jealous Again” can only be anticlimax after that workout.  What else could they do?

It’s very fortunate this live set was so well recorded, mixed and mastered for release.

In Conclusion

Though affordable, the 3 CD edition has skimpy packaging.  There is a small foldout with rare photos (and some really cool ones of Mr. Crowe’s Garden) but no real liner notes or other details.  It would just be nice to know more about where the rare tracks originated, or even the original studio album itself.  The album used to come with lyrics, but this comes with nothing.

Still the music more than makes up for up for the lack of packaging.  The top-notch live set is a revelation, and the bonus rarities are valuable and high quality.  You can’t say no to the music.

4/5 stars

 

THREE-VIEW: KISS – Best of Solo Albums (Japanese CD)

  Best of Solo Albums (Originally 1979, 2020 Universal Japan CD)

Third review for this Kiss compilation here, but why?  A couple reasons.  For one, it’s the first-ever official CD release of this album!  It took 41 years for them to finally put out a CD, and yet only in Japan.  More remarkably, there is one track here that I’ve never heard before in this particular version.

That song is the incredible Paul Stanley epic “Take Me Away (Together As One)”.  On Paul’s solo disc, it fades away at the end of side one at 5:35 in length.  Here, it goes to 5:48, no fade, right to the end of the track.  It’s an ending I’ve never heard before.  This song isn’t even on the more common European version of Best of Solo Albums, just the Japanese.  And apparently the CD has an unreleased version without the fade.

“Oh boy!” you exclaim.  “I have to buy this import just to get 13 seconds of music I never heard before?”

No.  You don’t have to buy it.  I did, because I wanted a copy of this album on CD.  When I discovered the longer version of the track, I was ecstatic to unexpectedly get something extra for my money.

There’s no need to review this album track by track again.  I’ve done it twice, and I’ve also reviewed all four solos albums twice each.  There’s really no need to run through all the songs again, although this tracklist is quite different.  Unlike the European version, these songs are not arranged in three-track blocks for each member.  Additionally, seven of the European tracks were substituted with others.  That’s more than half the album!

Gene Simmons:  Instead of “Mr. Make Believe” and “See You In Your Dreams”, Japan used “See You Tonite” and “Living In Sin”

Paul Stanley:  “Move On” was replaced by the unreleased version of “Take Me Away (Together As One)”.

Ace Frehley:  “Speedin’ Back to my Baby” was removed in favour of the instrumental “Fractured Mirror”

Peter Criss:  All three of the Cat’s songs – “You Matter To Me”, “Tossin’ and Turnin’”, and “Hooked on Rock and Roll” were replaced!  I guess Japan didn’t care for those as much as they did “Don’t You Let Me Down”, “Rock Me Baby” and “I Can’t Stop the Rain”.

For me, I prefer the running order that Europe used, with each member of the band getting three songs in a chunk.  However, there are plenty of songs that I prefer on the Japanese version, such as “See You Tonite”, “Take Me Away (Together As One), “I Can’t Stop the Rain” and “Don’t You Let Me Down”.

It’s interesting that the solo albums are by and large panned by the masses, but nobody can agree on the “Best Of“.  Maybe those albums weren’t so bad after all, at least when you distil them down to the essential tracks.  The Japanese CD will become my preferred listening experience for two main reasons:  it sounds better than the vinyl, and I like more of the songs.  It would sound even better if I had an MQA decoder, a new-ish hi-resolution CD format from Japan, which will unlock an even better sounding version of the album, if you have a few grand to spend on upgrading your system.  If not, enjoy the disc and stellar packaging, with not one but two different covers to display.

4/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Scorpions – Box of Scorpions (2004)

SCORPIONS – Box of Scorpions (2004 Universal)

Don’t worry – this Box of Scorpions cannot hurt you!  If fact if you allow yourself to be stung, you will find your reality injected with musical ecstasy.

This isn’t a box set to buy if you are looking for unreleased treasure.  It’s strictly a compilation, although you may be able to get a few tracks you didn’t have before.  Box of Scorpions covers every album from the debut Lonesome Crow, beyond 1999’s Eye II Eye, going as far as 2002’s Bad For Good: The Very Best of Scorpions.  That compilation CD included two new songs called “Bad For Good” and “Cause I Love You”.  They were recording specifically for Bad For Good, but it makes sense to get them on the beefier Box of Scorpions instead.

The first disc of this set is inaugurated by “I’m Going Mad”, the same technicolor workout that opened their first album.  The early psychedelic Scorpions songs are only represented by a couple, with “Fly to the Rainbow” being the second.  Stone cold classics form the bulk of the disc, with “Speedy’s Coming” being an obvious focal point.  “In Trance”, “Steamrock Fever”, “We’ll Burn the Sky”, and “Virgin Killer” are all essential cuts.  You can’t fit ‘em all in, of course, but the live album Tokyo Tapes fills in some of the most obvious blanks.  “Top of the Bill”, “Dark Lady” and “Robot Man” are great live inclusions.  The disc ends with the first steps into the modern Scorpions sound with a pair from 1979’s Lovedrive.

Disc two showcases the 80s and all the big Scorpions hits.  The band streamlined their sound.  Some may say “dumbed down”.  The Scorpions of the 80s were massive, but certainly were not challenging your grey matter with complex music like the 70s band were prone to.  They also lost the regality of the Uli Roth era, something his guitar brought to the band.  It was replaced by solid 4/4 hard rock, with plenty of hits.  There is only one live song (from World Wide Live) here, “Another Piece of Meat”.  The rest are all studio originals:  “Big City Nights”, “Still Loving You”, “Rhythm of Love”, “The Zoo”, “No One Like You”, and of course that unstoppable “Hurricane”!  Deeper cuts like “Coast to Coast” and “Dynamite” provide some serious meat.  This disc would make a pretty good standalone compilation.

The third disc concentrates on the 90s, which saw the Scorpions reborn by the success of “Wind of Change”.  Unfortunately, this ushers in a slew of ballads.  The few rockers like “Tease Me, Please Me”, “Alien Nation” and “Don’t Believe Her” are almost drowned by the ballads.  There are some songs you may have missed the first time around.  In addition to the aforementioned “Bad For Good” and “Cause I Love You”, you’ll also get “Over the Top” and “Life Goes Around” which were released in 1997 on Deadly Sting: The Mercury Years.  “Cause I Love You” is really the only keeper of these four obscurities.  It was originally written in 1978 for Lovedrive, and recorded in 2002.  That’s how it sounds, too.  As for the rest, at least getting by these songs all in one place, you don’t really need the other two compilations.  Disc three also contains the unfortunate “Mysterious” from the dreadful Eye II Eye album, and the soul live song “Hurricane 2000” from Moment of Glory with the Berlin Philharmonic.  Neither are really essential though “Hurricane 2000” has its fans.

Box of Scorpions adds up to a good set with plenty of value and a few minor surprises.  If you don’t own all the albums already, this is a good buy.  Be sure to get a copy with the outer plastic slipcase still intact!

3.5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Helix – Icon (2018)

HAPPY CANADA DAY from LeBrain and Superdekes! HELIX double feature!

HELIX – Icon (2018 Universal vinyl)

New Helix vinyl?  Yes please.

The Icon series of compilations used to be a budget CD line that you could pick up for $5 or under.  Now, you can even get ’em on vinyl.  Buy ’em direct from Helix mainman Brian Vollmer and he’ll sign it for you.  This copy is signed by all five current Helix members, including a pre-injury Fritz Hinz.

As far as Helix compilations go, you can’t do much with just 11 tracks.  Even so, Icon has some surprises and plenty of pleasers.  There’s also enough difference from 2016’s compilation Rock It Science to justify it.  Opening with the one-two punch of “Rock You” and “Heavy Metal Love”, Helix top loaded this thing with their best known songs.  Perfect for the newcomer, or just a great party.

From there it’s “The Dirty Dog”, a long time Helix concert favourite.  This is followed in quick succession by some great singles:  “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'”, “Wild in the Streets” and the dark ballad “Deep Cuts the Knife”.  All three songs are considered to be Helix classics.  “Deep Cuts the Knife”, written by guitarist Paul Hackman, is a particularly powerful ballad.  The entire first side is from the Capitol Records years, featuring the best known Helix lineup:  Vollmer, Hinz, Hackman, Brent Doerner and Daryl Gray.

Side two has a different flavour.  Only the hit “The Kids are All Shakin'” originates in the 1980s.  This top Helix pop rock track is followed by the Helix of the 90s and today.  “Good to the Last Drop” is another ballad, but much brighter than “Deep Cuts the Knife”.  This is the original album mix, with minimal keyboards.  Then it’s “Runnin’ Wild in the 21st Century”, kicking your teeth in at lightspeed.  The last two songs feature some help from guitarist extraordinaire Sean Kelly.  A razor sharp “Even Jesus Wasn’t Loved in His Home Town” comes from 2014’s excellent Bastard of the Blues.  The aggressive rocker is based on the fact that Helix can’t even their new songs played on the radio in their home town of Kitchener, Ontario.  Finally, the 2016 single “Gene Simmons Says (Rock Is Dead)” tells the demon where it’s at!  Maybe Helix don’t get radio play in Canada but rock ain’t dead — not if Vollmer and Co. have anything to say about it!

When it comes to Helix compilations, they are so numerous that you can really take your pick.  If you really care about the band, then just buy ’em direct from Vollmer at Planet Helix.  There are loads to choose from, but only this one was ever made on vinyl.  Or, you can just go CD!  Either way, support the boys if you’re gonna buy some Helix.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Tommy Shaw and Contemporary Youth Orchestra – Sing For the Day! (2017)

TOMMY SHAW and Contemporary Youth Orchestra – Sing For the Day! (2017 Universal)

These kids can play!

Tommy Shaw, accompanied by Will Evankovich, conductor Liza Grossman, and a whole orchestra full of highschool kids will blow you away on the live concert CD Sing For the Day!  It’s astounding to think that this room full of kids is so good that they got to perform the hits of Shaw with the master himself, and get it released as an album.  What gifted young musicians they must be.

Styx fans will adore Sing For the Day! for its roll call of classic songs, performed acoustically with the orchestra.  Styx music lends itself well to that kind of pomp and circumstance.  The album also boasts a number of Shaw favourites outside of Styx, like his first solo hit “Girls With Guns”.  With a new arrangement, “Girls With Guns” is almost unrecognizable but yet familiar.  You’ll also get Damn Yankees’ excellent “Come Again” and of course their hit ballad “High Enough”.

The album commences brilliantly with “Overture” from the newest Styx album The Mission.  Bar now set “high enough”, they run through “Girls With Guns”, “Too Much Time on My Hands” and “Fooling Yourself” with aplomb and joie de vivre.  You wouldn’t be going out on a limb to suggest that these kids do as good a job of it as Styx themselves do.  “Crystal Ball” soars majestic.  “Boat on a River” simmers quietly.  Most of the arrangements offer a freshness while being true to the spirit of the originals.  The only sputter is “Renegade”, which is stripped down and a little strange.

Set highlights include “Diamond” from Tommy’s 1997 album 7 Deadly Zens, a pretty incredible track.  “Come Again” is brilliant, as is the bombastic oldie “Man in the Wilderness”.  “Blue Collar Man” is among the best versions of the song ever recorded, and completely different from the original.  Fans should enjoy just about the whole shebang.  Casual listeners would recognize a number of these songs and might get a kick out of these novel interpretations.

Do not hesitate if you happen to find this CD in the wild.  It’s better than you might expect.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: The Gandharvas – Sold for a Smile (1997/1998 US and Canadian versions)

THE GANDHARVAS – Sold for a Smile (1997/1998 Universal US and Canadian versions)

What a band were the Gandharvas.  Lead howler Paul Jago could hit those Perry Farrell highs, and they wrote some pretty fucking great songs including their major hit “The First Day of Spring”.  An unappreciated gem would be their third and final album, 1997’s Sold for a Smile.  Led by the anthemic single “Downtime”, this is a hard album to resist no matter which version you get. It even made our list: “88 Unrightfully Ignored Albums of the 90s“.

Versions?  Yes, two:  the Canadian and US have different track listings.  In 1997, Canada got the basic 10 track CD.  When it was released Stateside, a number of tracks including “Downtime” were remixed.  The US and Canadian versions of “Downtime” have vastly different guitar solo and outro mixes, for example.  The States also got two bonus tracks:  a new recording of “The First Day of Spring” and a cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”.  (The original album was a shorty at just under 40 minutes.)

The Gandharvas turned it up a notch for this album without losing sight of their more delicate tendencies.  “Gonna Be So Loose” is a slamdance of squealing vocals and chords.  (This song is available remixed on the US version.)  But then “Shells” is a low, strummy song perfect for the headphones.  It shows of the layered vocals that are a Gandharvas trademark.  “Waiting for Something to Happen” then goes somewhere between Guns N’ Roses and screamy, psychedelic punk rock — an astounding song, which then defies all logic by going acoustic.  And then all over the place.

Time for a little more pop in the rock, with “Hammer in a Shell”.  Snarly pop, with a sour candy coating.  “Watching the Girl” was another fine single, a more streamlined song for this album.  It too was remixed on the US edition, putting the guitars way louder.  Then strap in for “Sarsasparilla”, a boulder-heavy rocketship blast into space. “Into the Mainstream”, then, is a bit more complex, and perhaps a little bit epic.

“Milk Ocean” leads you to the end, with a healthy dose of acidy psychedelia.  It’s the closer, “Diabaloney” that’s a real head scratcher.  Is it a joke?  I can’t tell.  “I fuck it up, I got the fuck, I got the luck,” goes one set of lines.  Heavy and screamy goodness, but a real headscratcher nonetheless.  What the hell did I just listen to?

On the US version, the new recording of “The First Day of Spring” is placed third in the running order, after the remixes of “Downtime” and “Gonna Be So Loose”.  It’s quite a bit heavier than the original, though a brilliant song it remains.  Could it be actually a polished up live version?  Why does Paul Jago yell out “Colorado!” in the middle?  For fun?  This band is from London, Ontario not Colorado!  And “Time After Time”?  They twist it up, give it bite, and for better or for worse make it their own.  Unless you have a serious attachment to the song, the Gandharvas’ interpretation is quite cool.

As if you can’t tell, this is an album you should own.  Get one or the other, or both!

5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – 20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection (2005)

THE MIGHTY MIGHTY BOSSTONES – 20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection (2005 Universal)

Every journey has a first step, and by luck of the draw, my first Bosstones is their 20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection CD.   This was purchased in the 3-for-$10 bin at BMV, during the now-legendary 2018 Toronto excursion with Aaron.  It was the only Bosstones found on that trip, unfortunately, but one is better than nothin’.

I like Universal’s 20th Century Masters series; most of them anyway.  Some are pretty terrible, but in general they compile key hits with the occasional non-album gem.  The Bosstones’ instalment covers the major label period from 1993’s Ska-Core, The Devil, and More EP to 2000’s album Pay Attention.  Pretty much “the stuff you might know”.   I say this because I knew a lot of these songs.  Which is good!

It’s the brass that makes everything sound so damn tasty.  The first blockbuster punch of “Someday I Suppose” and “Don’t Know How to Party” bring the horns to the fore.  When you have a gravel-voiced singer like Dicky Barrett it helps to have some sax and trombone to deliver more melodic hooks.  This frees Barrett to sing in his in inimitable style, scraping the paint from the walls with sonic sandpaper.

The rest of the band are more than capable of handling background vocal chores, as demonstrated by the 1993 Bob Marley cover “Simmer Down”. Dennis Brockenborough (trombone) ably joins Barrett for “answer” vocals, enriching the Bosstones’ brew.  The quality cover tune is swiftly followed by another:  “Detroit Rock City” from the 1994 Kiss tribute album Kiss My Ass.  Catch the Gene Simmons cameo at the front, telling Dicky he couldn’t do “Detroit” but any other song would be fine.  Gene was forced to eat his words, because here’s “Detroit”, with a brick-solid wall of horns and chords.  Inclusions like this are great because fans who didn’t want a Kiss tribute album and can’t find the single can just buy 20th Century Masters instead.

Moving on chronologically, “Kinder Words” and “Pictures to Prove It” are more tough, hook-laden ska rock.  Tracing the river of cool hooks back to its source, they rise from the well of brassy horns and backing gang vocal melodies.  The Bosstones formula is hard to resist once you jump in.  Then, once Dicky Barrett’s unique voice gets hold, you’re in the tide.  From the same period, a “clean remix” of “Hell of a Hat” is another inclusion that would help out collectors; it’s from a promo-only CD single.

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones had a major hit with 1997’s “The Impression That I Get”.  It’s completely deserved because it’s a brilliant single.  It doesn’t vary from the core Bosstones sound, it just distils the elements down to a concentrate.  It’s an obvious gateway point to the band, an invitation to a pretty cool party.  From the same album (Let’s Face It) are two more recognisable hits:  “Royal Oil” and “The Rascal King”.  And though they are not as familiar, “So Sad to Say” and “She Just Happened” from Pay Attention are pretty much just as good.

This is one 20th Century Masters CD that I don’t regret owning.  Brilliant band, solid tunes throughout and a couple rarities for the connoisseur.  Get Mighty.

4/5 stars